Mary Timony sounds confused. The singer/guitarist for the Boston trio Helium knows she's supposed to be calling someone, but she can't quite recall the name.
"Umm, is Shawn there?" she asks in her soft, reedy voice, revealing an absolute lack of confidence. Before she can be told that no one named Shawn lives at this residence, she haltingly identifies herself and apologizes for the mix-up. You see, she's stuck in this noisy Perkins restaurant in Montana, and she's been doing interviews all day, and, well, she's just a bit tired.
Few sane artists really relish the grind of daily self-promotion, but the 27-year-old Timony seems particularly ill-equipped for it. Though Helium has been together for five years, the band has rarely toured until this fall, when it unveiled its second full-length album on Matador, The Magic City. Though the lack of live action could be attributed to the busy schedules of her bandmates--bassist Ash Bowie plays with Polvo, and drummer Shawn Devlin has moonlighted with Dumptruck--Timony hints that the biggest reason is that she just can't come to grips with the touring experience.
"It's really hard when you're on the road," Timony says. "I still haven't worked that all out. It's difficult to write. It's difficult to be creative when you've got to do a bunch of other stuff. Although it's more fun now, 'cause we're playing with a keyboard player, and we just decided we'd work harder."
The keyboard player is more a necessity than a luxury for Helium on this tour, because Timony's latest batch of songs employs such a colorful sonic palette that the standard rock-trio format couldn't begin to do it justice. The Magic City is not only one of the most artful and imaginative albums of the year, but it's a collection that breaks one of the fundamental rules taught in remedial Rock 101 classes.
Every music hack this side of Dave Marsh will tell you that the best rock feeds on anger, much like a shark prefers warm flesh. A few rock artists--John Lennon, Patti Smith--have been able to find dignified new avenues after conquering their demons, but even these people were never quite as riveting when they no longer had axes to grind. Most angry young rockers simply fall off the globe, with nothing left to express after the angst fades. Anybody heard from Joe Strummer lately?
Helium is almost an inversion of that theory. True, the early Helium was a moderately interesting, angry young indie-rock band. The 1994 EP Pirate Prude contained the notorious track "XXX," the video for which depicted Timony as dolled-up fantasy slut, an image which she intended as an ironic swipe at macho sexism, but which Beavis and Butt-head predictably interpreted as simple horniness.
The following year's full-length debut, The Dirt of Luck, offered evidence of Timony's growth as a quirky tunesmith, but nothing could have prepared one for the gorgeous monster that is The Magic City. Recorded with famed R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter--who also handled Pavement's recent Brighten the Corners--Magic abandons the oppression of guitar distortion, and consequently allows a host of trippy textures to breathe in the mix. Harpsichords, sitars and violins collide on an arty-pop album that's extravagantly produced, but never slick. It's chamber music for the lo-fi, indie-rock crowd. Easter, who Timony describes as "really, really awesome," provided the band with a kind of sonic toy box in his Fidelitorium home studio, and clearly, the band took advantage of it.
"We were just kind of tired of the messed-up sound of distortion, and the studio we were recording in had a lot of analog keyboards," Timony says. "We decided we liked the sound of acoustic type of instruments better 'cause they're more soothing. I guess what happened is we started using the chamberlin a whole lot and it had a whole lot of really good acoustic sounds on it, so that was an influence."
Timony knew that this album had to sound different, because she felt different. She was no longer the girl who described herself in song as "creepy and sullen and running out of my room." She was no longer the incendiary gender warrior who could write, even with tongue in cheek, "The only good man is a dead man." The problem is, once you discard an emotion as powerful as anger, what do you replace it with?
"I had a lot of trouble writing any songs for this record, and that may have had something to do with it," she says. "I felt like I fell into this role earlier that was easy to write songs from, and then I got tired of that. Then I thought, 'I don't really know what I'm going to do.' I guess I just started thinking if I can't be so personal with the songs anymore, I just want to have them be more imaginary and playful and that kind of thing. They're based in reality, but a lot of them are images that are totally unreal."
The imagery suggests that Timony is an emotional time traveler alternately fast-forwarding into a space-age fantasy world and rewinding back to medieval myth. In "Aging Astronauts," the song she credits with curing her writer's block, she sings over a jazzy-folk acoustic guitar rhythm, "I count the stars almost every day/The aging astronauts have floated away." And even if Timony's thin vocal quaver recalls iconoclastic labelmate Liz Phair, a line like "It's the season of the witch and the drinking of wine" reads more like a Stevie Nicks journal entry.
Unfortunately, many music scribes mistake Timony's penchant for fairy-tale dreamscapes with some kind of nerdish fascination with hobbits and sorcery. One particularly painful recent episode came out of such assumptions: an interview with Alternative Press in which the reporter insisted on taking the band to a New Jersey-based Medieval Times restaurant.
"It was kinda lame," she says of the interview. "And we were sitting there, and everything was really loud and no one could hear. And then the guy was asking me, 'What's the similarity between this place and your music?' And I was like, [meekly] 'Uh, I don't know.'
"I can't tell anyone enough that I don't have an interest in any of this stuff. It's all just vague references to it, but it's not like I belong to some weird society of Dungeons & Dragons people. But then again, it is fun to be influenced by weird people like that and to draw from their weirdness."
For Timony, a self-described loner growing up in Washington, D.C., space and time travel is less a scholarly obsession than a convenient way to escape the sadness and mundanity of her world.
"It's more an unconscious type of thing," she says. "It's more on some kind of emotional level than any type of literal interest that I have in anything. It's more like space is a good place to be 'cause it's away from here, or something like that. I feel like I search for imaginary places to find calm and beauty in, and that seems to be an obvious place that's far away."
Like a more accomplished female Jonathan Richman, Timony has found solace in a childlike sense of wonder only after engaging in a series of wrestling matches with her darker emotions. So her spacy innocence feels less like a coy affectation than a hard-earned wisdom. Even so, The Magic City can't help but expose a few frayed nerves. Perhaps the album's defining tune, "Devil's Tear," explains her need for escape this way: "I'm moving out of here with a bag of Devils tears." And the delightful Cars pastiche, "Leon's Space Song," rides its jerky synth riff into a surprisingly tough-minded chorus: "All my friends in L.A. love me more than you/Love lasts a very long day and then is through."
She may have set aside some of her gender rage, but Timony hasn't really accepted the music industry's inherent sexism. She's just decided that nothing she writes is likely to fix things overnight. She says that gender inequities didn't really make an impression on her until she played guitar with male musicians at an arts high school. As we speak, the current issues of both Rolling Stone and Spin are devoted to "Women in Rock." Timony is completely ignored by Rolling Stone, but gets a photo and short mention in Spin.
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A couple of years ago, she might have been annoyed at the obvious calculation of such publishing gambits. When it's suggested that both magazines chose to shoot their wads with one megahyped issue, rather than simply doing a consistently better job of covering women over the long haul, Timony agrees. But she also shows some willingness to view the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.
"I guess I have mixed feelings about it," she says. "What it makes me think is that major labels have definitely decided that they can market women, that women are marketable. And maybe that's not so bad, 'cause maybe it'll change people's attitudes. I guess, overall, I think it's pretty cool."
Helium is scheduled to perform on Saturday, November 15, at Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Tempe, with Syrup USA. Showtime is 10 p.m.